Hey, NYC: Who’s Watching You?

11/01/2023
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    A drone flies over New York City on April 19, 2023. The New York City police department has started piloting police surveillance drones in response to complaints about large gatherings and other calls. (AP/Ted Shaffrey)
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    U.S. Capitol police test an Unmanned Aircraft System near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
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    Officer Scott Hermon pilots the department’s first drone in Streetsboro, Ohio, in 2017. Streetsboro police say a drone provides many of the same capabilities as a helicopter at a fraction of the price. (AP/Dake Kang)
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    This photo shows an overhead view of a protest on Third Avenue in New York City in 2020. Drones can monitor gatherings from above. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
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    An NYPD boat patrols the East River in New York City. (AP/Ted Shaffrey)
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Folks visiting New York City may notice uninvited guests hovering nearby: drones. These unmanned aircraft may respond to police calls—including visiting private events. The idea of robotic eyes in the skies troubles some privacy advocates.

Over 1,400 police departments across the United States use drones, according to the Atlas of Surveillance website. New York City has used them for years.

Like other police departments, the NYPD relies increasingly on drones. They monitor crowds, provide data ahead of first responders, and locate danger areas. Data shows that by summer’s end, New York police had used drones for public safety or emergency purposes 124 times. That’s up from just four times in all of 2022!

NYC Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, wants police to further embrace the “endless” potential of drones.

Before Labor Day, NYPD officials announced increased drone patrols. The city was planning for an annual event with thousands of revelers. Police wanted extra help. The force decided drones would respond to both “priority and non-priority” calls.

“If a caller states there’s a large crowd, a large party in a backyard, we’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up and go check on the party,” says Kaz Daughtry, assistant NYPD Commissioner.

The message produced backlash. Some people claimed the type of observing conducted by drones would be illegal if a human officer did it. Many questioned whether such drone use—into citizens’ backyards—violated laws about police surveillance.

The Bible says people who do right aren’t afraid of the authorities. (Romans 13:3) Even so, it’s strange to think about sending a drone to investigate a backyard BBQ. Balancing privacy and policing can be difficult.

“It’s a troubling announcement,” says Daniel Schwarz, a privacy and tech planner. “Deploying drones in this way is a sci-fi inspired scenario.”

Privacy expert Jay Stanley understands the need for police presence. But he told NBC News, “What we don’t want to see is . . . routine patrols by drones, routine hovering over our homes and communities.”

Albert Fox Cahn is a privacy advocate. He believes NYC officials should be more transparent about how police will use drones. Cahn also advises clear rules that prevent future overreach.

Meanwhile, an American Civil Liberties Union report predicts drone use is “poised to explode” among police departments—without good guidelines in place.

“It’s important that we don’t sleepwalk into a world of widespread aerial surveillance,” the ACLU report reads. It suggests that communities “think very carefully about whether they want drone surveillance.”

Why? As new technologies emerge, police (and citizens!) have a duty to safeguard people’s rights and privacy.

View a bubble map that shows how one event (such as police use of drones) can lead to another.

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